The Imaginary Theatre Company once again warms hearts and tickles young imaginations with a whimsical and cheerful holiday production. A Gnome for Christmas introduces the youngest members of the family to live theater with a mix of story and song that offers gently persuasive, positive lessons about persistence, belief, and self-confidence.

Timmy, a friendly gnome played with an impish and full heart by Charlie Barron, lives in the woods near an old, crumbling farmhouse. Cheerful by nature, he doesn't seem quite himself this holiday season. He tells Frank the skunk, a puppet with a friendly demeanor and nervous tail animated by Jeanitta Perkins, that he wishes a family would move in so he had someone to watch over and help.

His wish is soon answered in Leonard, an always optimistic inventor played with a stubborn streak and abundant curiosity by Aaron Orion Baker, moves in with his daughter Lulu, a nervous young girl more concerned about practical realities than her father. Lulu is an appealing young girl, whether singing or speaking, and Catherine Regan brings her to life with a genuine yet skeptical personality. The house is a mess, the fence is falling, and if Leonard can't sell his latest invention, landlady Agatha Tode will toss them out at the end of the month.

The story is told with an emphasis on possibility and the benefits of helping each other, whether you're efforts are initially recognized or not. That's an important message, but it's delivered in a natural, unaffected story that doesn't make too much of the lesson. The songs have easy rhyming melodies and simple rhythms that go on just long enough, never becoming too repetitive or annoying. The positive moral is told as a matter of fact, and the four actors combine their energy and voices in harmony in this charming, short play with music. The show runs about 40 to 45 minutes, just long enough to get a full live theater experience without trying most children's patience.

Director Alan Knoll understands children's theater from every big moment to the important heartwarming, hug inducing little ones, and the ensemble responds with wonderful timing and captivating performances. The movements and characterizations are a bit exaggerated and cartoonish, a perfect approach for small children. Perkins twists and jerks as the old landlady with a bad back, and she juxtaposes the lively and emotional skunk and creaky and complaining landlady with convincing flair. Baker's over-punctuated gestures and exclamations; Regan's sighs and arched eyebrow; and Barron's wide-eyed grin, played straight to the kids, are just right, and enhanced with simple and effective stage craft.

The straightforward, uplifting story and songs, by Sarah Brandt and Stephen James Neale, respectively, are just clever enough, revealing the character's inner motivations or celebrating a job well done. They are woven intermittently throughout the show, offering a distinct change of tone that keeps kids' interest while moving the story forward. Music director Neale keeps the pacing quick and the harmonies pleasing, and the actors have uniformly pleasant voices, particularly Regan. Designer Scott Loebl and costumer Lou Bird have created a colorful world with lots of interesting details that is nonetheless quickly transformed, as needed, by the actors. The entire show is portable, enabling the company to easily adapt to almost any space with just the cast and tireless stage manager Dora Jane Trenbeath, a testament to thoughtful design.

The Imaginary Theatre Company, established and supported by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is dedicated to producing positive, highly entertaining theater for young audiences. Their holiday show is particularly well suited for introducing children age seven and younger to live theater, with simple characters, plot, and staging by design. The small cast delights their young audiences by frequently switching from song to play, capturing and holding their attention. Clever humor, appealing arrangements, and the occasional wink and nod help ensure the rest of the audience doesn't get too bored, either.

A Gnome for Christmas, running through December 23, 2016 at the Imaginary Theatre Company, is positive and stimulating family entertainment, with a happy-go-lucky tone and vibrantly exaggerated characters that keep distractions and disruptions to a minimum. There may be clapping and cheering at unexpected moments, or the occasional loud comment, but the even the most restless kids at the performance I attended were interested and actively watching the show.

 

 

There's one thing that you need to understand before making your reservation for Dixie's Tupperware Party. You see, while Dixie Longate is delightfully conversational and perky girl who could probably chat you up on most any topic, this is still a Tupperware party and a girl has a job to do. Dixie started selling the clever and fantastic plastic containers in 2001 and though she's not quite made it to top earner, it's easy to see why she's a star performer in the organization.

To begin with, she's warm, inviting, and as down-to-earth and friendly as she can be. Equally comfortable poking fun at herself or her audience, Dixie starts her party off by pouring a healthy serving of Jack Daniels into that legendary never-spill sippy cup. In addition to providing all the important details about the Tupperware product line, she's quick to offer helpful, lesser-known tips, like the fact that the cupcake side of the cake carrier is perfect for Jell-O shots. 

As an attendee to her party, you're subject to, and sure to be entertained by, her constant patter, including deliciously catty commentary, suggestive and risqué humor, and wise cracks directed to certain audience members. She's never mean-spirited, and her uninformed assumptions are immediately relevant and humorous. 

Dixie's ability to improvise on the fly is flat-out impressive, an unexpected highlight of the performance. Several of the funniest party moments are in direct response to audience participation, and Dixie instantly weaves it all together with an expert touch that will likely have tears of laughter running down your face. What she did with the idea of a "water salad" the night I attended was as sharply pointed as it was spot-on hilarious.

In the sense that it's as much performance as it is plastics, Dixie's Tupperware Party is also unlike any other home sales event you've ever attended. It's boozier, bawdier, and not suitable for work, but with more of a moral to the story than you might expect. Dixie has clearly lived a full life, one that includes three kids and a stint in jail. Though the evening zips by with joke after joke, the smaller more intimate and revealing moments remind you that behind the dazzling smile, Dixie is a person filled with fears, uncertainty, and fragility just like the rest of us.

Dixie also tells us the story of Brownie Wise, the woman who single-handedly invented the in-home sales party when she decided to demonstrate and sell Tupperware products by hosting get-togethers among her friends and their friends and neighbors. It's here that Dixie's positive message really shines through and you may find your heartstrings tugged by the true admiration and fondest the big haired, brightly costumed sales girl has for a woman she never met. There's an authentic emotion that shines through when Dixie softens her voice and let's us into her personal story, and Wise fits comfortably in the mentor matriarch role.

The story of Dixie Longate, a reformed mother and Tupperware party hostess from Mobile, Alabama, was written by Kriss Anderson and directed by Patrick Richwood, who keeps things moving at a frenetic pace that perfectly suits Dixie's hyper and excitable personality. The set, a glorious folding table, overfilled with shiny plastic products, is complemented by smart use of a projection screen and emphasized with lighting and sound by Richard Winkler and Christopher K. Bond, respectively. This is Dixie's show, however, and if you're open to her charms, you'll find her entirely captivating and devastatingly funny.

Like many performers, Dixie is big, brassy, and loud, with a biting wit and sense of humor that sheds laughter on life's darker moments. She can be a little too open and bawdy for some tastes, but her ribald humor is filled with humanity and the natural grace one learns after having picked one self up numerous times. Audience participation and interaction is encouraged, and you're welcome to bring in a beverage and sip along with Dixie. Please remember, however, that this is her show and treat the invitation with respect. Running commentary with friends and taking selfies during the show are never courteous theater behavior. 

The Playhouse at Westport Plaza has reinvented itself as a home for smaller theater, often one-person and small cast touring shows delivered with professional panache and an emphasis on comedy. Dixie's Tupperware Party, running through December 18, 2016 isn't for everyone. But if you like your merchandising served with a generous helping of laughter, innuendo, and fun, you won't want to miss this show.

 

 

 

 

Peter Pan, the story of a boy who wouldn't grow up, was created by Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie in 1904 and has delighted children and adults worldwide for more than a century through countless versions on the stage and screen. The story behind this story, however, didn't really come to light until the 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Alan Knee, which inspired the 2004 film Finding Neverland, which in turn inspired the 2012 musical by the same name. 

Finding Neverland made its St. Louis debut last week at the Fabulous Fox on its first National tour, bringing a heaping dose of family-friendly inspiration and imagination (and a bit of schmaltz) in telling the story of Barrie's most renowned work. While Peter Pan's directions to Neverland are "second star to the right, and straight on till morning," Barrie's own path to finding Neverland was inspired by his relationship with a widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and her young sons.

As the show opens, Barrie, played with childlike wonder and zest by Kevin Kern, is enjoying a rare sunny day in Kensington Gardens in turn-of-the-century London. Wracking his brain to come up with a new play for his producer, Charles Frohman (played by the comedic Tom Hewitt), he's only able to rehash old ideas from past plays. Inspiration comes serendipitously in the form of Sylvia's boys: George, Jack, Michael and, of course, Peter. A rotating cast of fine young actors plays the Davies brothers. 

George, Jack and Michael romp around the park playing pirates, much to Barrie's delight and fascination -- though he becomes even more fixated on young Peter (played on opening night by the excellent Eli Tokash), who seems to have lost his desire for imaginative games following the recent death of his father. Barrie also takes an instant liking to Sylvia, played poignantly by Christine Dwyer. Being a married man, however, the two keep their relationship platonic, if not a bit flirtatious. Together, they rekindle Peter's spark, as well as their own, in the catchy, pop-driven number "Believe." 

Complicating things is Barrie's high-society wife, Mary, and Sylvia's dour mother, Mrs. du Maurier, neither of whom approve of the pair's budding friendship. Mary inevitably walks away from her husband, not content to play second fiddle, while Mrs. du Maurier tries to protect her daughter and grandchildren by all but forbidding them to spend more time with the frivolous Barrie. 

Inspired by his interactions with the family, however, Barrie begins to create the fantasy world of Neverland. The most fun moments of this show are those that reveal the origins of some of Peter Pan's iconic imagery. The reflection of a spoon on the wall at a dinner party become's Tinkerbell's light; the curve of Charles Frohman's cane as he warns Barrie that the "clock is ticking" becomes Captain Hook's famous hook-hand. 

Peter Pan's characters, too, are drawn directly from Barrie's relationships with the people in his life. Yet, while he bestows his title character with young Peter's name, it becomes apparent that "the boy who wouldn't grow up" is really a reflection of Barrie himself. When he shares his new vision with Frohman at the theater, the producer balks and rolls his eyes, declaring, "A play for children?" Barrie responds prophetically, "It's not just a play for children -- it's a play for everyone. We all have a child inside us."

As Act One draws to a close, Barrie and retreats deeper and deeper into his imagination, reflected in the four-part "Circus of Your Mind," the most complex and layered of the show's tunes by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, as the legendary Captain Hook emerges as Barrie's own "darker side."

In Act Two, Frohman's theatre company prepares to perform Peter Pan, feeling very out of sorts with their highly unconventional new roles. The Davies brothers are on hand to inspire and provide a child's-eye view of Barrie's vision of Neverland. 

Now single, Barrie's friendship with Sylvia quickly deepens into something more, becoming fully realized in the sugary ballad, "What You Mean to Me," as the couple's shadows dance along, projected on the wall behind them. Kern and Dwyer have undeniable chemistry and harmonize beautifully, making this overly-sentimental moment bearable. 

Their blooming romance is cut short, however, by the growing frequency of Sylvia's deep and foreboding cough. The realization of Barrie's masterwork coincides with the loss of his new love in a beautifully executed sequence that evokes a full range of emotions, bringing deeper meaning to the show's title. 

Vivid and quickly morphing set designs by Scott Pask bring Edwardian era London to life in every scene, while unique projection design by Jon Driscoll, coupled with lighting effects by Kenneth Posner inject the show with a touch of Peter Pan magic, particularly in the dazzling finale. 

Finding Neverland is an inspiring story of life, death, love and the power of imagination, loosely based on J.M. Barrie's real-life creation of his greatest masterpiece and those who inspired it. While the story could have delved deeper into the darker and more complex aspects of these relationships, as well as the work they produced, it treads more on the surface, making it clear that the producers, along with writer James Graham and Director Diane Paulus, were going for something with a broader appeal. 

While not necessarily groundbreaking in its adaptation, Finding Neverland is an uplifting show meant to please Broadway fans of all ages. As Barrie's character declares, "Shouldn't theatre be for everyone? The young and the young at heart?" 

Finding Neverland continues at the Fabulous Fox through December 18.

 

 

Call me sentimental, hokey or even crazy, but sometimes when I'm sitting in a dark theatre and the lights come up on the actors on the stage, I get chills all over my body and I just know that what I'm about to watch is going to be a great show. There's something in the air that gives it away. This happened to me last Friday at the Missouri History Museum, where I went to see Metro Theater Company's production of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I read the synopsis of this play. A toy rabbit goes on a journey? What really happened is that playwright Dwayne Hartford took me and the rest of the audience on Edward's journey and it was miraculous.

The play begins in a grand house where Pellegrina gives her granddaughter Abilene a new china rabbit made just for her in Paris. He has his own suits, pocket watch, and silk pajamas. Abilene names him Edward Tulane.

Abilene loves Edward deeply, but Edward, who is vain and shallow, isn't capable of loving anyone. How does the audience know this? After all, he's a toy who can't speak since his mouth is painted on. They know because Edward has his thoughts, which are brought to life by actor Pete Winfrey. Winfrey is credited as The Musician in the cast list, and he strums the soundtrack to the play on his guitar while embodying Edward Tulane, doing both so well that I occasionally forgot he was there, and Edward's thoughts seemed to actually come from Edward the toy rabbit.

Grandmother Pellegrina can hear those selfish thoughts and tries to teach him a lesson with a morbid story about a princess who loved no one but herself, but Edward can't understand her message -- yet. Only after he is accidentally tossed from a ship, lies face-down in the muck of the ocean for months, is rescued by a fisherman and taught about the stars and loss, becomes the confidant of many Great Depression-era hobos -- only after that does he understand the message of Pellegrina's story. Only then can he appreciate the sacrifices people make when they love someone.

All these adventures take place on a bare stage with just a few props and set pieces, yet nothing more is needed. Every member of the crew was on their best game for this show, from sound to costumes. The stories are told, and told well, through the actors' incredible work. Bridgette Bassa and Adam Flores are a dynamic duo on stage, always in perfect sync; their accents and body language moving fluidly from character to character. Erin Renee Roberts is a dauntless narrator and player of many other characters, who holds the audience easily in her grasp. Roxane McWilliams is perhaps underused as The Player; she never speaks, but her musical additions round out the soundtrack. At the heart of it all is Winfrey, the only actor who plays the same role throughout the production.

Hartford adapted Kate DiCamillo's book of the same name for the stage, and director Julia Flood found all the richness of this script and has it on display for us to see. From the original music, the design of Edward, the magical projections of stories and stars that somehow seem at home in the historic setting, she and her cast and crew have woven a beautiful, poignant theatrical experience that every St. Louisan over the age of 8 can enjoy.

If you believe the holidays are about loving and being loved, then this show is for you. Metro Theater Company's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, directed by Julia Flood, plays at the Missouri History Museum now through December 30.  

The New Jewish Theatre brings Alfred Uhry's gentle and lovely ode to aging and race relation to life in a thoroughly enjoyable production of Driving Miss Daisy that reminds us why the movie struck such a chord when first released. The show, which moves with languid fluidity, traces the 25-year relationship between an older white Jewish woman and her chauffeur, a slightly younger African-American man. Set in the period from 1948 to 1973, their relationship is a microcosmic view of the changes in American society as the Civil Rights movement gained steam and was passed into law.

Daisy Werthan, a comfortably well off widow of a certain age, has just wrecked her new car. As a result, her son, Boolie, and her insurance company determine she is no longer capable of driving. Understanding his mother's desire to socialize and move around independently, Boolie suggests hiring a chauffer. Daisy immediately bristles at the idea, but Boolie ignores her and hires Hoke Coleburn, an African American man in his late fifties.

Daisy rebuffs Hoke initially, saying she'll take the trolley to the store rather than waste money on a driver, but he flatters her into accepting his offer to drive. One might think that, considering the period and recent persecution of the Jewish people, Daisy would be less inclined towards prejudice. But she proves otherwise, initially showing distrust and slight distain to Hoke. Daisy seems oblivious to the harm her words and actions can do, and it's very satisfying to watch her attitude and behavior change as the play progresses. Hoke shows remarkable patience and forgiveness towards the older woman, eventually winning her over with his essential honesty and genuine likability. 

The play's moral compass is firmly rooted in understanding and relationship building, an idea that's continually reinforced. Daisy and Hoke's back and forth continues over the years, mellowing into a valued friendship filled with increasing interest and affection. The time period of the show, critical to the theme and Uhry's nudging moral, is reflected in the actors changing ideas about trust, race, and society. The personal nature of the story, which is also reflected in Boolie's loving relationship with his mother and unquestioned respect for Hoke, is effectively employed to address the larger issue of societal racism without berating audience members.

Kathleen Sitzer is charmingly stubborn and warm, even when she's careless or rude, and she brings a zest for life to Daisy. Though her movements become slower and more difficult to execute as she ages, she retains her vibrant and curious personality from start to finish. J. Samuel Davis is kind, patient beyond words, and genuinely likable. He carries himself with dignity that commands, but never demands, respect and effectively counters Sitzer with a calm, cheerful demeanor prone to laughter. The exchanges between the two are pure fun to watch, and they play off each other in delightful ways. Laughter is more frequent, their postures relax, and they become freely affectionate as the show progresses. Eric Dean White is sympathetic and caring as Boolie, an almost thankless role that nonetheless adds important context to the story. Appropriately supportive, he nonetheless provides additional perspective and a voice of reason and progress, even when his mother fears he's losing his Jewish roots.

Director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga clearly knows the material well, and she ensures the actors find multiple emotional levels, an important touch to a show that is more dialogue and character than action. Dunsi Dai provides the set design and art, effectively using levels and smaller, quickly moved pieces to augment the fixed set. Lighting designer Mark Wilson does a nice job shifting focus; he somehow manages to make the rest of the set disappear when not needed. Costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, props master Meg Brinkley, sound designer Zoe Sullivan, and dialect coach Nancy Bell all contribute to the show, in part by keeping the focus on the story.

Much like the soft, southern accents employed by the actors, Driving Miss Daisy, in performance at the New Jewish Theatre through December 18, 2016, moves with a slow but constant fluidity. The difficulty of covering a span of 25 years is solved with small changes and additions that never disrupt the action or story. These touches help the audience enter Daisy and Hoke's world and embrace the sweet natured love of their deep friendship. We are invited along for the ride as race, age, religion, and class melt into the past and we're left with two near inseparable companions sharing one last visit.

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